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Train Blogging: Freight Car Storage and Brakes

by asdf Thu Mar 5th, 2009 at 09:59:52 AM EST

Remember last year when there was an outcry because U.S. farmers had to temporarily store their grain on the ground because of a lack of railroad cars? Well, now with the economy in the tank, the railroads have the opposite problem: Nowhere to store the excess cars.

Also, in a sort of unrelated note, some interesting info about the reality of how hard it is to manage long heavy freight trains with their 19th century brake technology.

Under normal economic conditions, rail cars are "stored" on the main lines as they travel from place to place. But with reduced traffic, they are ending up in people's back yards.

Fort Collins is a busy enough train town that most cars parked in the city are eventually picked up, according to city and railroad officials. The city is luckier than other train towns, which are playing host to the more than 206,000 boxcars parked by the nation's five largest railroads. The number represents 30 percent of the nation's boxcars. An average boxcar is about 65 feet long; end-to-end, they would stretch from New York to Salt Lake City.

In December, Union Pacific Corp. parked a three-mile-long train of cars in Thornton south of 168th Avenue to just north of 136th Avenue. But residents revolted, and UP agreed to move the cars to an area north of Colo. 7 to just south of Weld County Road 6. They couldn't be moved until the city of Thornton removed asphalt that had been paved over the tracks near Weld 6, however.


The air brakes on American railroads are surprisingly crude, basically unchanged from the original 19th century design. This makes it pretty challenging to actually drive a train through hilly terrain.

Sometime after 1 p.m., Train 762--two long black locomotives pulling 110 shiny aluminum cars, each heaped with over 90 000 kilograms of West Virginia coal--arrives at the Bluefield crest. The train, bound for the power plant at Hyco Lake, N.C., stretches nearly 2 km and weighs nearly 18 million kg.  

The engineer, Jeff Hayslett, eases into his throttle to pull us over the hump, but it isn't long before he turns to the brakes. The Norfolk Southern, like most U.S. railroads, teaches engineers to control the train as much as possible with the locomotives' dynamic brakes, which slow the engines by reversing the electric current that powers their traction motors.

In practice, this means Hayslett uses the air brakes to set a base level of braking and the dynamic braking to modulate it. But here the air requires its own precision: If you're short a couple of pounds per square inch, the train might get away. (One pound per square inch is just under 7 kPa.) But if you're a couple of pounds over the mark, the train will stall, and you'll have to fully release the brakes (or "knock off the air") and then set them up again, probably before the reservoirs are fully charged. In the cab it's known as "pissing away your air."

"If you get your train set up the first time right, it means when you go down the mountain you ain't gotta fight the train," Hayslett explains. Otherwise "the train's gonna be working you instead of you working it."

He applies the dynamic brake, and we can feel a great number of gentle bumps as each hopper rolls into the one that preceded it. A few minutes later, with the train bunched up and the speed approaching 21 km/h, Hayslett grips a lever with two hands and reduces the brake pipe air by 8 pounds. His plan is to knock the air off at milepost N350, a flat spot in the grade where he'll have time to recharge the system before setting the brakes up again. Next he'll release the brakes again at Oakvale, W.Va., and then again several miles later, at the start of a very long stretch of flat running.

Then, after a long slog up a 16-km hill, we approach the entrance to the Merrimac Tunnel. Burrowing down for 1.5 km, with a grade of just over 1 percent, the tunnel presents an unusual braking challenge. Without braking, the train will gather momentum quickly. But Hayslett can't apply the air brakes while he's in the tunnel.

"Anytime you put the air on, you're subject for something to go wrong," explains Peters. Peters is thinking specifically of what's called a kicker, a sticking valve so sensitive to a reduction in brake-pipe pressure that it begins emergency braking and "kicks" the train swiftly to a halt. Braking miscues like this are called undesired emergencies, and they've grown more irksome for railroads in the last 20 years.

Traveling at 32 km/h, our train could stop in as little as 20 seconds if the brakes were applied at full force, Allran supposes. But then the forces acting on the train might be severe enough to cause it to derail.


I'm not sure I want those trains sharing rails with passengers...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Mar 5th, 2009 at 12:51:44 PM EST
There's been quite a bit of news about idle rail cars in the U.S.

Feb 23, WSJMiles of Idled Boxcars Leave Towns Singing the Freight-Train Blues

Tens of thousands of boxcars are sitting idle all over the country, parked indefinitely by railroads whose freight volumes have plummeted along with the economy...

Railroads, which have seen shipping volumes drop by double-digit percentages in recent months, face a particularly vexing problem. The nation's five largest railroads have put more than 30% of their boxcars -- 206,000 in all -- into storage, according to the Association of American Railroads. Placed end-to-end, the cars would stretch from New York to Salt Lake City.

Boxcars were on a bit of decline in the U.S. before the Wall Street black hole. The U.S. mostly ships goods that would have been shipped previously in boxars in intermodal containers now, however rail freight in North America is declining.

Mar 3, Houston ChronicleRecession sidetracks rail cars by the thousands

The recession has left rail cars parked on sidings in Houston and across the U.S., an estimated 200,000 or more nationally, because of a dramatic drop in cargo.

Overall freight shipments nationally are down about 15 percent, Tom White of the Association of American Railroads said. There are approximately 1.3 million freight cars on U.S. rails.

Union Pacific Railroad, the biggest rail operator in Houston and North America, has 48,000 rail cars sitting idle. It's not clear how many are stacked up in Houston...

The slowdown also has translated into job losses at railroads. Union Pacific has furloughed 3,150 employees as of late January, said Lange, who would not break out how many jobs were cut in Houston.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe, another big player in the Houston region, has about 35,000 freight cars in storage and has furloughed about 2,500 workers, spokesman Joe Faust said.

The other end of the idle rail cars in the U.S. are the stacks of containers in Asia. Shipping containers are stacking up in China.

Feb 26, Cargo News AsiaEmpty containers clog China's Yantian port

In Shenzhen's Yantian port, 400,000 containers are sitting empty, a volume that far exceeds the port's designed capacity of 250,000 containers.

Across the border in Hong Kong, officials are looking for a place to house hundreds of thousands of empty containers expected to hit the city in the next few months, the South China Morning Post reported.

With the global financial crisis deepening and a crippled manufacturing sector, China's port operations would have likely worsened this month.

Last month, container throughput in Shanghai, the world's second-busiest container port, fell 15 percent and that in Shenzhen fell 17.5 percent. The declines were the worst performance ever for the two ports.

In Hong Kong, container throughput fell 24.1 percent in December last year and 23.2 percent in January. Hong Kong's container throughput since November last year has been the worst since the early 1990s.

And the shipping containers are piling up in South Korea too.

Mar 2, Bloomberg News — Empty Containers Clog South Korea's Busan Port as Trade Slumps

South Korea's biggest port is running out of room to store shipping containers, said Park Jung Ho, an official at one of Busan's nine operators. The bigger concern is that the boxes are almost all empty.

Container trade at Busan, the world's fifth-largest port, has fallen about 40 percent in recent months, said Park, at Busan International Terminal Co. Even by stacking boxes five deep and leasing a nearby lot, he barely has room for the 31,700 containers that have piled up on his wharves.

Rail is cyclical in North America and with miles and miles of idle rail cars sitting on sidings across the U.S., some of the rail car manufacturers are tanking. For example — GBX's stock is at $2.82/share, down from a bubble high of $38.37 in July 2007. ARII's stock is at $6.59/share, down from a bubble high of $41.49 in July 2007.

The North American railroads stock also show decline too: UNP, BNI, KSU, CNI, CP, CSX, and NSC all are down between -40% and -70% from their highs in July of 2008.

by Magnifico on Thu Mar 5th, 2009 at 06:35:48 PM EST
I suppose those containers would make useful houses...
by asdf on Thu Mar 5th, 2009 at 09:57:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But they'd need a lot of investment in heat prevention. Right now they're hot in summer and cold in winter, the opposite of what's needed.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Mar 8th, 2009 at 04:46:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Would re-introducing guards vans (cabooses ?) and split braking make a difference ?

I read somewhere that rail unions insist on 3 people in the engine cab, which really hits the economics and mandated the long trains. Britain makes do with one or two and so can have a lot of short frieght trians, which are easier to manage.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Mar 8th, 2009 at 04:48:55 PM EST
No, adding caboose cars would not work. The trains are so long now that the cumulative slack in the couplers adds up to several meters, which causes a tremendous jerk when the slack gets picked up at the back of the train.

The real point of the article was to talk about electric brake systems, which use air to power the brakes combined with an electrical control signal. With this approach, the brakes can be applied to all cars at the same time, and modulated for better control.

by asdf on Sun Mar 8th, 2009 at 07:33:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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